A comprehensive report published by the Solidarity Research Institute found that vaccines are an effective and safe way to end the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the report also supports South Africans’ freedom to decide for themselves. Strong criticism is levelled at the government’s central control of the vaccine programme and as Connie Mulder, head of Solidarity’s Research Institute, told BizNews, “mistrust in the government has created a situation where mistrust in the vaccination can foster as well. Hopefully, we can get good information to people because people do not trust government information at the moment, and I can understand why. Get them good information so that they can make the best possible choice for themselves regarding their health situation and their risk management of Covid-19.” Mulder joined BizNews to discuss the report and its findings. – Claire Badenhorst
Connie Mulder on why the research report was done:
It’s exactly because of the disinformation on both sides that we decided – we’re in a low trust environment at the moment with people especially not trusting government and with very good reason. That means we needed to go and see for ourselves. At Solidarity, we’re a trade union but we have a certain leadership role in our cultural communities especially and it would be irresponsible to not go and give people the best information that we could find to enable them to make a good and informed decision, rather than get lost in the noise.
On why parts of the report are based on nations that have been heavily vaccinated:
So we decided from the start that we are not going to look into media articles; we’re just going to look at the raw numbers, and there we focused heavily. I think it’s 100 countries that we modeled, but not everyone’s vaccination programme is sufficiently progressed to actually see results and therefore, the report does skew heavily towards countries that have already vaccinated a certain percentage of their population. What we found there, quite simply, and this is now regarding Israel, the United Kingdom, United States, as well as Hungary as examples, is that as vaccination rates among adults rise, there is a real and sustained decrease in hospitalisations and deaths due to Covid-19, which indicates one of the two questions that we wanted to answer. Do vaccines work? And the answer from the raw data, from what we can see, is that, yes, they do work quite well in reducing hospitalisations and deaths due to Covid-19.
The other question, as with all medicine is, is the risk worth the benefit, meaning all medicines have side effects. There’s no such thing as a medicine that has no side effects and any medicine that’s arguably worse than the illness that it’s trying to treat would not be worth the time. So for that, we then focused on two questions. First is, does it work? And secondly, is it safe?
On the safe question, we looked at the adverse event reporting system from the United States of America, as well as the side effects monitoring database from Europe, and checked what are the side effects that people have reported and what is the frequency of these side effects? Our findings there were that there are side effects, but they are exceedingly rare and actually that the safety profile of these vaccines are very much in line with other vaccines that we’ve seen thus far. Many of the side effects are similar. If you take, for example, allergic reactions is one of the main ones. Now, that’s something that we know vaccines cause and a certain percentage of the population will have an allergic reaction to a vaccine. You’ve got claims of millions of people dying after the vaccine and being seriously affected and the numbers just don’t play that out. I think it’s about 0.2% of people who will show a serious adverse reaction to the vaccines, but if you’re going to very serious side effects, it’s still, for most people, the risks would still outweigh the benefits regarding vaccines.
We’re estimating at about 2,000 to 2,500 out of a million people will have a side effect that they actually think they should see their doctor [about]. Now, if you compare this with the illness – with Covid-19 – if a million people got symptomatic Covid-19, 140,000 would end [up] in hospital and almost 23,000 would die. So that’s why we say for most people, the risks would still outweigh the benefits. This is age-standardised. As you’re going up in ages, if you’re 40 and above, then your chances of being seriously injured due to Covid-19 start rising dramatically.
On what Solidarity is recommending to its members and others who read the report:
So we’ve got three recommendations. The first is that for South Africa’s vaccination programme to show any semblance of success, we need to realistically get this out of government hands. At the moment, we’re a dismal failure in world terms and government’s insistence on being the sole buyer and sole distributor… Well, luckily now in July, we’ve realised that the virus tends to also work on weekends, so now we’re vaccinating on weekends, but we could have had the private sector involved much earlier. This would have fostered much more trust, as well as get the vaccination rollout quicker because speed is of the essence here.
The second one is that no country with a successful vaccination programme made vaccinations mandatory – that is not the way to go. If you want to get a successful vaccination programme, you need to inform people. But everyone should still be able to make their own choices, and that’s why we’re extremely against mandatory vaccination. We’re actually just against the principle that somebody should undergo a mandatory medical procedure. This should be informed consent and people should make their own decisions. The third one is that we think that vaccines work and that they are at least as safe as other vaccines and that if you choose to be vaccinated, we recommend that you use either Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, or AstraZeneca, since we’ve seen in real-world data – we’re talking about millions of people now – that they do reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death significantly.
On the Sputnik and Sinovac vaccines:
So with Sputnik, the main problem is that there isn’t really enough real-world data on the same level as Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson and those to conclusively show that it works extremely well. With Sinovac, we’ve got serious doubts as to the effectiveness. What we can see is that it’s not nearly as effective as the other ones on the market. If we look at countries like Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile, which do have high vaccination rates with Sinovac, we cannot see a significant reduction in deaths in most of those countries due to Covid-19. That leads us to conclude from the data at least that Sinovac is not as effective as the Pfizer and Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca vaccinations. That’s something that we’re trying to get done as well, is that if you want to vaccinate in South Africa, you will have a choice of which vaccine you take, so you’re not stuck with Sinovac or with the Cuban one, which you might distrust in some way.
On mistrust in government:
I think people have a massive mistrust of any official communication regarding Covid-19, and I think it’s justified. Thus far during this pandemic, we’ve had a government that has willfully misled citizens. We’re now in a situation where there’s a fear that grips everyone [on] Sunday night because you don’t know if you have a job on Monday. Something might happen with immediate effect. Our health minister is currently under a corruption cloud. This commission being set up most likely to explore how much funds were stolen during Covid by the government, so that means anything that government promotes is justifiably mistrusted. Then when the government tells you we’re going to vaccinate, that’s something that people start off with a default position, which I think is correct to say, but we don’t trust you.
Now, what has unfortunately happened is that the lines have blurred here, that mistrust in the government has created a situation where mistrust in the vaccination can foster as well. That’s why we said to combat this you start with raw data. You start from a clean slate and just look at, does it work and is it safe? Ignore all the noise around you. So hopefully we can get good information to people because people do not trust government information at the moment, and I can understand why, but get them good information so that they can make the best possible choice for themselves regarding their health situation and their risk management of Covid-19.
At the moment, I think it might actually hurt in certain communities if President Ramaphosa tells them to vaccinate, quite simply because of massive levels of mistrust in the government. In our cultural community, for example, we can clearly see that a government that has insisted on allocating help or aid based on race is something that people inherently mistrust when they say we’re going to come and help you – and with good reason as well. So that means the only way that we see a successful vaccination programme and hopefully, a successful end to the pandemic without thousands more dying is if the government stops trying to do this alone and allows leaders from the private sector, as well as the NGOs and community sector to start getting involved and start taking the lead here. Government has quite simply eroded the trust that was placed in them in March last year. They’ve spilt their milk and now it’s time if we want to get out of this, for the rest of South Africa to start leading and explaining to people that certain things work, certain things don’t. Banning warm chicken in Woolworths is not the best way to stop the pandemic, but we think vaccinating might be.
On how the Afrikaner community is reacting to what is happening in SA:
So the Afrikaner community might be, I think, about 10 years ahead of the rest of South Africa simply because as a community, we’ve borne the brunt of most of these government policies, meaning Afrikaans public schools have been systematically eradicated, Afrikaans universities. And that means the gatvolheid is here. From what we can see, there was a definitive break with trust in government during the Covid pandemic. It was sort of a last hope that maybe, maybe they won’t be as useless in this case as they are with providing power or anything in those regards. Government has once again not disappointed and showed us that the one thing you can bargain on is incompetence and corruption from the ANC.
Luckily it’s past denial; it’s at anger, but what we’re seeing is the green shoots of a real sustainable solution. We’ve got extremely good contacts with other traditional communities and cultural communities, and we’re starting to see a South Africa that becomes a community of communities where people start building their own schools and taking ownership of educating their children, of their safety, as well as their own lives, and their economic situation. Hopefully, with the announcements to load shedding regarding private power generation, people can even take ownership of energy for your community. And if you can get that direction, this is a much more sustainable and natural movement that we’re seeing happening in South Africa. Afrikaners are part of that. You’ll see our slogan now is in Afrikaans, ‘Ons sal self’ or “we’ll do it ourselves’, but the important part is we’ll do it ourselves but not alone. We know that we need to take hands with other communities and ensure that we sort of get ourselves as state-resistant or government-resistant as possible to ensure a prosperous future for our community, but also other communities.
There are several constitutional rights and clauses as such that guarantee the right to safety and at the moment, we’re seeing (from the government) lots of policy regarding these rights but very little action. If you look at the protests now in Natal, government should theoretically be guaranteeing safety and security but the harsh reality is that the capability to do so has been eroded by corruption, by mismanagement. That means that if you want a safe and secure environment, you are going to have to take ownership for that at some point and do it privately. That’s the harsh reality. We can hope that the government recovers, and obviously, we’re not hoping that the country falls into chaos and anarchy. But we’re working with the reality on the ground, which is, if you want to create a safe environment, then you have to take ownership of that. And as a community, you can organise and you can make sure that you ensure peace and stability, at least in the areas that you deem to be able to do it. So it’s that we’re moving in this space between government’s policy and their capability and ensuring that the constitutional spaces that are guaranteed do not stay text on paper, but that we would rather ensure those rights become a reality.
On the riots and looting in KwaZulu-Natal:
It’s a very unfortunate situation. I think we always recommend to our members, please stay safe. Avoid conflict if you can at all. These riots are, I think it’s a result of, quite frankly, a socio-economic situation that has deteriorated far out of government’s control and that means we are sitting with one out of two adults without a job. This is understandable given the demographics and the economics, not excusable, but it was always going to lead to rioting at some point.
Now, what started with a thin veneer of political protest has just descended into absolute criminality and anarchy. So our advice to our members is stay safe as far as you can, and then if you want to reliably and sustainably ensure a safe environment, then it’s quite simply, we will need to organise as civil society and as labour then, meaning the only way that you’re going to have safety is if you’re better organised than the criminals. Unfortunately, the police is a part of that solution, but they cannot be the whole solution. You need to get involved in structures, get involved in neighbourhood watches, and ensure that you make the area that you live in for your community and the communities around as safe as possible.
On his vision for the next few years:
Specifics is always difficult, but I think we’re extremely hopeful. We’re seeing, realistically, the end of a system of government that we’ve now tried, which is the centralised planning one with African nationalism as the main driving force. As expected, centralised planning has failed. The centralisation of power has once again failed. What we’re seeing arising out of the green shoots and which is something that we think is a much more sustainable future for South Africa, is a more federal or decentralised dispensation that will wind down power to lower decision-makers and that automatically comes with more accountability. So it’s not utopian thinking. There are several countries that work well on federal systems, especially heterogeneous countries where you’ve got massive heterogeneity regarding cultures and languages.
Having this one central plan for the whole of South Africa is quite simply madness. There’s no way that you can govern at least 11 different cultures on all aspects. In the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s actually become worse; it’s now one National Coronavirus Command Council that decides for everyone. This is not the way to do it. Unfortunately, we are now in choppy waters, but we think if we can take hands as communities and eventually create a South Africa that’s a community of communities, where we can agree on levels of stuff that affects us all, meaning water provision, electricity, all of those things – the stuff that affects everyone in South Africa – and then allow decision-making to be at the lowest possible level for other things, we can get to a place where we’ve got a safe and prosperous future for our children.
We’ve been moving in the direction of getting viable alternatives to stuff that just does not work. Obviously, we would like the system to work, but we’re also realistic. We need to prepare for if it doesn’t and that’s what Solidarity has been in the business of, is just building the reality that you want to see and that’s what we’re going to continue doing. We hope that other communities would take our hands here and realise that if you’re going to wait for government to give you what you expect, you’re going to be waiting for a long time, but if you start building the future that you want to see, there’s a very good chance that you will be living that future in hopefully the next five to 10 years.
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